Few of us know of the moment we were conceived. Our parents might remember, or think they do. “It was that night on the beach…in the van….during the snow storm.”
My sister-in-law swears she can feel her eggs being fertilized, the strongest sperm squirming its way through the outer membrane, the two becoming one. She has predicted the birth of her children to the day, and sometimes the hour. But most of us don’t know. Our parents haven’t a clue. And our mind cannot, or dare not stretch back to the moment we became. So, when someone asks us our first memory, it is not the bumpy trip down the fallopian tubes into the womb. It is a scraped knee when we were four, or our first day of Kindergarten. Apparently, it can take a few years for the human mind to develop self-awareness- to stumble upon the realization that “I am.”
One of the most common questions asked of writers is, “When did you start writing?” And the answer is generally, “As soon as I could, of course, just like everyone else.” Most of us started at some point in our early youth making scribbles and loopy lines- “Look at my writing, mommy,” and progressed from there to chunky letters and painstakingly formed words. But that is not really what that question means, is it? “When did you start writing,” actually means “When were you conceived as a writer?” When did you first become self-aware enough to say, “I am a writer.” Most everyone writes, but why and when do some of us suddenly realize writing is our essential identity.
Much like the egg/sperm thing, I don’t know that this is easy to pinpoint. Nor do I think it is quite the singular event, but more a progression, a development, if you will. There are moments when we say with confidence, “I am writer,” and other moments when we fall down and skin or knees, and we aren’t so sure.
In my own life, I remember several distinct moments of writerly conception. The first was in eighth grade. My English teacher had an index card box full of “story starters” at the back of the room. From that box I chose the idea, “Write a story of what would happen on Earth if our sun suddenly became much hotter than it is now.” I proceeded to write, what is in my memory, a poignant, first-person, character-driven story of one woman’s tragic struggle for survival as the sun slowly burns her world right out from under her. I have no idea what happened to that story. I do not have it now. It was not an assignment, so I didn’t get a grade. I know my teacher read it, and in my memory she praised it, but I could have cared less. It was the story I cared about. The story I adored and read over and over, and marveled at. I had no idea I had such a thing inside of me, or if I did, that it could be separated out like that, distilled into something fictional, and beautiful and true.
The second time was not long after. My mother died of cancer when I was thirteen. It was a difficult time. I had been a keeper of journals since I could write, but all the words I wrote during that time were inadequate, limited and dead. Then one day, I began to work on a poem about my mother’s death. It was titled, “But when she dies, she flies.” It was rhyming and repetitive and probably awful by any critic’s standards. I still have that poem, tucked away in my files on yellowed paper, done in a flowing cursive almost exactly like my mother’s. It is the truest, best poem I will ever write. I knew then that writing was the key- to everything.
But somewhere between thirteen and adulthood, I lost that confidence in who I was. I misplaced my moment of conception. Flash forward to me at thirty-five, married with two school-age children and contemplating the return to my career as an Elementary School teacher. I’m walking with my brother Bill down the path to my parent’s lake. It is fall and the brown oak leaves crunch under our feet. The children, his and mine, run on ahead, and their voices echo back to us as we meander after them along a trickling stream.
“I’ve decided to become a writer.” I say to Bill. “I won’t be going back to teaching.” I don’t hear his response, or remember or even care. I’m not telling him, really. I’m telling myself, again.